Saving History

January 1, 2007 by  
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Building a life together by preserving historic buildings

“If you tear that building down and put up a parking lot, I’ll divorce you.” Thus began Stewart and Joella Morris’ many years of historic preservation. This exchange, more than 35 years ago, concerned the original Stewart Title headquarters in Galveston, constructed in 1882. Stewart, a loving and practical man, decided to preserve both his marriage and the building. He and his brother, Carlos, bought out his cousin.

When asked about Stewart’s version of their entry into historic preservation, Joella gets a wistful look in her eyes, a soft smile creeps across her thoughtful face and then, in a burst of girlish giggle, she says, “Yes, that is just how it happened!”

A lifetime achievement

Stewart and Joella Morris have spent their entire married life dedicated to recognizing, researching, restoring and honoring history. At the same time, they have built the family business into a highly successful international corporation now headquartered in the Galleria area. These two go hand in hand.

In recognition of their storied preservation work, the Morrises will be honored on Feb. 2, 2007, as the recipients of the Greater Houston Preservation Alliance’s President’s Award at the annual Cornerstone Dinner. Several of the Morrises’ antique carriages from their private collection of more than 50 will line the drive at the River Oaks Country Club for the event. In addition, the evening will mark the presentation of GHPA’s Good Brick Awards for excellence in architectural and cultural preservation.

Parties, politics and preservation

“We were a well-known company in Texas in the late ’50s; but when we went into New Mexico, then Arizona, Florida and California, no one knew us,” Stewart says of his company, Stewart Title. The company has now grown into Stewart Information Services Corporation, a state-of-the-art real estate information services company now doing business in more than 30 countries.

“We were making headway getting known by inviting the general counsels of the insurance companies to dinner at the annual American Land Title Association meetings,” Stewart says of his company’s growth. “I always had Joella do the seating; it’s important who sits where.” However, the bigger companies started having elaborate parties, “with 20-piece orchestras and such, we just couldn’t compete.”

Stewart knew he had a winning asset. He knew his wife, Joella, had a sophisticated plan for attracting the contacts they needed to grow the family business. “I like parties,” Joella says a bit coquettishly. And, being a solidly pedigreed Southern Lady, she knows how to give them. By observing legendary Houston icon Miss Ima Hogg and her own mother, who loved antiques, Joella realized, “People of quality are interested in history.”

Joella researched each city’s history, architecture and people before the annual meeting to find the most interesting historic location for Stewart Title’s dinner. The invitation featured a watercolor of the site painted by their daughter Carlotta; and each dinner featured a speaker, often a historian, who could enlighten the audience about the history, culture and architecture of the building and the area.

Stewart beams with pride over her success, “We found that the world turns on personalities and history. Local charm and history has interest to sophisticated people. We’d get 100 percent attendance.”

Opposites attract

Stewart Morris and Joella Mitchell met at a Baptist summer camp. When they returned home to Houston, they had one date. Six years later, when Joella was a senior at Southern Methodist University and Stewart was in his last year at SMU Law School, they met again. Despite the fact that he was a morning person and she a night owl, he a bit tight with a penny and she loved to spend it, they married after graduation in 1943.

Stewart was soon in the South Pacific with the Navy. He participated in seven invasions, including Leyte, one of the worst. His war experiences are solidly behind his advice for future generations. “Remember what this country is built on,” he says. “It is built on Judeo-Christian philosophy. It is built on the Ten Commandments. Don’t forget where you came from.”

Saving history

To continually remind us of our historical roots, Stewart and Joella have spent a lifetime preserving significant parts of history. Stewart’s first trip to George Washington’s Mount Vernon was in 1934. As a result, he and Joella are active in its preservation, having recently rescued a Palladian window.

Locally, Joella was responsible for marshalling the Colonial Dames to save the Sweeney Clock and restore it. You can now find it ticking in fine shape between Hobby Center and Bayou Place. She also gets credit for saving the old Fort Bend County Jail — and much more.

Stewart’s mantra might well be, “Quality, quality, quality!” He considers Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello at the top of the quality list. Jefferson’s architecture inspired the Morrises’ Southern National Bank in Sugar Land, which housed the Museum of Southern Culture. Under the chairmanship of daughter Liz, the bank recently sold at a significant profit, but the museum lost its home.

A fine arts building is under construction on the Houston Baptist University campus to house “Joella’s museum.” The Morris family is in the process of establishing an endowment so that the museum will live long past this most remarkable couple, Stewart and Joella Morris.

Joella’s goal right now “is to make a success of the museum,” and since Stewart has turned over much of the operation of the business to his son’s generation, he may be available to help even more. Joella gives her husband credit for all her success, and Stewart gives Joella credit for all of his. “We’re happier than we’ve ever been,” they both tell me, a testament to their life of service together.

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